This book examines the reverberations of key components of Ronald Reagan’s ideology in selected Hollywood blockbuster movies. The aim of this analysis is to provide a clearer understanding of the intertwinement of cinematic spectacles with neoliberalism and neoconservatism. The analysis comprises a dissection of Reagan’s presidential rhetoric and the examination of four seminal Hollywood blockbuster movies. The time range for analysis stretches from the 1980s until the 2010s. Among the key foci are filmic content as well as production and distribution contexts. It is concluded that Reagan’s political metaphors and the corporatization of film studios in the 1970s and 1980s continue to shape much of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking.
Conclusions and Outlook
The analyses conducted in this book have revealed that echoes of Reaganism continue to reverberate in Hollywood blockbuster movies on multiple levels. One of the principal observations that arose from the dissection of these four blockbuster phenomena was the growing manifestation of a “multicultural neoliberalism”—especially in the three movies released after the 1980s. This emphasis on diverse representation was less pronounced in E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial, in which a white, middle-class family is reunited through the symbolic restoration of the father. This restoration was structured by a pushback against governmental bureaucracy and feminist advances into male spaces—discourses that strongly mirror Reagan’s 1980 campaign rhetoric. Almost all characters in this southern Californian suburb are Caucasian and the principal protagonists, Elliott and E.T., are constructed as male. The subsequent cinematic visions of the restoration of the nation as a family unit feature a prominent Black–Jewish alliance in Independence Day, an ambitious, female assistant district attorney and an African-American CEO in The Dark Knight, and two highly trained female combatants and an African-American agency director in The Avengers. The increased diversity in terms of gender and race is accompanied by an ever-growing focus on centralized capital in the high-tech sector. This ranges from the not-very-subtle product placement of Apple computers as Earth-saving devices to the high-tech combat gadgets produced by Wayne Enterprises. This evolution of sanitized capitalism culminates in the global corporate empire of Tony Stark—whose very body is interconnected with his accumulated capital on almost post-human terms.
Viewing these developments through the prism of Reaganism has made it clear that the economics of post-industrial Hollywood privileges cultural productions in which consumption is increasingly articulated through national and global identity politics. The consistent manifestation of anti-government cultural discourses throughout all of the movies can be considered in the context of declining trust in national institutions as mediators of societal transformations. There seems to be growing evidence that mass culture uses both an imagined mid-twentieth-century aesthetic and the countercultural discourses of the 1960s and 1970s to design synthesized images in which the contradictions of globalization are negotiated in terms that are favorable to ←311 | 312→neoliberal consumption (e.g. the marriage of Cold War rhetoric and a Black–Jewish alliance sponsored by Apple or the back-and-forth between an archetypal WWII hero and a billionaire Black Sabbath fan). It can be argued that Reagan’s small-government rhetoric aided in providing a cultural blueprint for an anti-statist redefinition of the post-industrial dynamics between the individual and the nation. In her examination of Captain America as a global envoy of the United States, Eeva-Kaisa Lintala channels the observations of David Miller on the state of “national identity in a globalizing context”:
[P]eople increasingly define themselves and build their identity through groups and communities that do not have to do with nationality. The sub-culture can be based on religion, profession, political stance, ideology, or an interest. Rather than a nation, there groupings can be international or tied to a local environment. Nationality is still a part of one’s identity, but it can be argued that its meaning has diminished, while these other groups have become more important. (26)
This argument highlights the decline of the conventional nation state as a focal point for the global positioning of the self—in its stead, the sense of belonging derived from self-chosen collectives has emerged as a significant element in the construction of identity. However, Lintala points out that the tremendous inconsistencies of globalization have given rise to nationalist movements that frequently invoke an exclusionary ethno-culturalist understanding of the nation. In the context of global blockbuster filmmaking, the recourse to identity politics seems to be a reflexive response to mounting questions regarding the fabric of the nation and the positioning of its constituent identity-based groups.
Reagan’s rhetoric alone did not bring about the realignment of the nation state in cultural narratives in the United States. However, in light of the blockbuster success of the proto-Reaganite Star Wars and Jaws, Reagan’s speeches can be better understood as the cultural affirmation of an industrial nation state already in crisis. Given the emphasis on individualized consumption in neoliberal capitalism, the salvaging of the nation is mainly brought about through the use of recognizable items of consumption. Thus, there is ample grounds to further investigate how consumption of these brands relates to the formation of cultural identities. What are the implications for blockbuster filmmaking when the popularity of certain brands aligns with global delineations of race, class, gender, space, and political affiliations? This question is of vital importance for understanding transnational movements that revolve around branded models of either cultural hegemony or resistance (e.g. Trumpism, the Occupy movement, the Me Too movement, “New Labour/Neue Mitte,” the Yellow Vests). The accelerated circulation of these branded models can be attributed partially to ←312 | 313→digitalization, but also to the cross-market dissemination of images through global blockbusters. These images may not independently kickstart national or transnational movements, but they do provide an extra-lingual vocabulary in the form of shareable visual narratives.317
By reading blockbusters through a Reaganite lens, further overlaps between right-wing neoliberalism and multicultural neoliberalism have been uncovered. Besides their commitment to a globalized and consumption-oriented economic model, both outlooks are characterized by triumphalism. This aligns with the optimistic and reassuring story lines of high-concept filmmaking. The analysis of Independence Day offered a very stark example of how neoliberal consumption is presented within a Fukuyaman vision of the “End of History.” This naturalized trajectory of alleged success can be further illuminated by a consideration of Tom Engelhardt’s concept of “victory culture,” which posits that the Reagan era was pivotal in reviving victory culture in US-American mass media (The End of Victory Culture 270).318 While Engelhardt primarily outlines this concept in relation to a military narrative (the “American war story”; 5), the underlying logic of a seemingly liberational triumph applies to all four movies (with The Dark Knight being the most muted in this respect). Engelhardt describes the “war story” as “an inclusive saga of expanding liberties and rights that started in a vast, fertile, nearly empty land whose native inhabitants more or less faded away after that first Thanksgiving.” From the socially conservative family restoration in E.T. to the triumph of globalized capital in The Avengers, all blockbuster narratives clearly present a pushback against racial Others, totalitarian forces, and incompetent bureaucracies as a necessary, liberational struggle. The implicit Thatcherite creed that “There is no alternative” (George, Another World Is Possible; Altvater in Butterwegge, 58) finds a distinctly US-American expression in the confident assuredness of victory in the face of an unwarranted intervention into the realities of the white ←313 | 314→middle class. This stylistic inflection echoes Reagan’s own Hollywood-esque public persona of optimistic jingoism and his cheerful embrace of individualized consumption.
The analysis of these blockbusters has thereby revealed how the formulaic structure of blockbuster movies is highly conducive to the distribution of narratives that can fuel transformative political projects on triumphalist terms. However, where there is triumph, there is no room for alternatives. Consequently, there is no discursive terrain for cultural negotiations that break away from the axiomatic “war” frame that George Lakoff has described as a semantic strategy to relegate “all other concerns as secondary” (Thinking Points 29). The resulting reduction in the (literally) viewable options for conflict resolution seems to confirm Kellner’s observation that “spectator politics, in which viewers/citizens contemplate political spectacles, undermines a participatory democracy in which individuals actively engage in political movements and struggles” (Media Spectacle 177). The analyses of the legacy and repercussions of the selected blockbusters have underlined that the only expansion of freedom these cinematic spectacles can offer their viewers is the liberty to participate in ever-expanding merchandise and franchise empires of consumption.
Future analyses of the societal ramifications of blockbuster-related merchandise would benefit from digging deeper into contemporary epistemologies of “freedom” under a neoliberal cultural regime. In this book, I have provided starting points by demonstrating that blockbusters are carefully crafted and targeted cultural mass phenomena. In light of the integration of multi-level market research and the conception of cinematic universes, it becomes crucial to ask to what extent accelerating digitalization will enhance research on potential audiences through social media algorithms, as well as the tracking of viewing profiles on streaming services. In what ways will Hollywood corporations be able to design enhanced spectacles of “choice” that can shape the structure of personal desires?319 How will individualized media usage affect a formula that hinges on transcending tastes and cultural barriers?←314 | 315→
The transcultural implications of blockbuster movies also affect the portrayal of the Other. Starting with ID4, the representation of the Other is tied to cultural portrayals of the “War on Terror.” As outlined in Chapter 2 and in the analysis of The Dark Knight, much of the semantic toolbox of neoconservatism in the United States is derived from the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Against this background, the analysis of seminal blockbusters through a Reaganite lens has made it possible to uncover not only filmic echoes and ideological continuities, but also forebodings of future conflicts with racialized Others.
In E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial, the Other is still given a humanizing face—this applies to the non-threatening alien, as well as the government, which is represented by the sympathetic agent “Keys.” Starting with Independence Day, the adversarial Other appears in less humanized terms (from vicious aliens to a grotesque clown figure to a narcissistic demi-god and his accompanying fleet of marauding aliens). While these four movies do not provide enough evidence to assert the existence of a general trend in Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, it is nevertheless worth noting that these highly profitable filmic watersheds mirror a conception of otherness that Kellner pinned down in his analysis of The X-Files: “Yet ‘otherness’ and difference are deployed in a variety of modes, some of which serve as a critique of normality and dominant institutions and discourses, while some of its representations defame marginal and ‘othered’ cultures as dangerous and grotesque” (Media Spectacle 138).
As the reactionary realignment of racial hierarchies under Reaganism was built on cultural fantasies of the reconciliation of progressive and conservative discourses (e.g. the civil rights movement, different feminist movements, etc.), the new types of Other needed to produce a foreign body that resided beyond any overarching discourse of humanity. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, the foreign body had to reflect a more fragmented global political reality. It can be concluded that Reaganite fantasies of national reassertion provide a pop cultural blueprint for filmic narratives in which the Other appears as more amorphous, feminized, and yet endowed with (space-based) globe-threatening technologies. Most of these elements were already in place in the archetypal blockbuster Star Wars. However, upon considering subsequent decades, it becomes apparent that the conservative imaginary offers a convenient transition to cultural representations of the “Terror War.” As noted in the footnotes to the introduction of Chapter 4, Stephen Prince’s observations on the portrayal of Arab villains in the right-wing bombfest Iron Eagle (1986) reflect the hallmarks of post-Soviet global adversaries to US-American might: “[T]he enemy occupies no terrain specifiable on a map’s coordinates but is, rather, a ←315 | 316→nebulous, threatening Other, a projection of political and cultural anxieties poorly understood and assignable to regions of the world only in general and superficial terms” (Visions of Empire 68).
This subtext of intangibility and incomprehensibility was found to be fertile ground for othering the Joker in The Dark Knight. His bizarre appearance and his lack of a backstory or rational motivation contributed to his dehumanization, which was deemed to be in alignment with neoconservative definitions of “the enemy.” In addition, the cinematic atmosphere of war played into notions of a government-declared national emergency reminiscent of the post-9/11 era. Reading The Dark Knight from the Reaganite perspective of counter-terrorism as a war against an irrational and dehumanized “Other” has underscored the discursive parallels between the Bush and the Reagan administrations. What is more important in the context of this study, however, is that the analysis has added to a cultural genealogy of racist images of the post-9/11 Muslim/Arab, a cultural genealogy that is partially rooted in the geopolitical shifts of the late 1970s and 1980s. The semantic interlocking of terrorism and race did not start with Reagan, but his introduction of the “war” frame into public discourse has contributed to an intermedial exchange of fantasies of national emergency that facilitate large-scale projects of securitization and imperialism. The recourse to such established semantics makes solid business sense in the context of a corporatized Hollywood landscape in which it is less risky to serve an existing market than to carve out a new one (Franklin 63). The re-performance of the idea of an irrational Other caters to existing anxieties while simultaneously offering a digestible interpretation of new complexities in a multi-polar world. Against this backdrop, it might be worthwhile to ask to what extent an increasingly perplexing global environment can fuel popular demands for simplistic story lines, as opposed to tales that acknowledge irresolution.
The analysis of The Avengers established a new mode of post-9/11 and post–financial crash cultural negotiation. Neoconservative discourses of global hegemony are now translated into a collage of diversified teamwork and a “sanitized war” with minimal civilian casualties. The villain Loki is particularly interesting in that he is driven by more rational and clearly self-serving motivations, unlike the Joker, and he summons a conventional army of aliens to invade the United States by attacking its primary symbol of capitalist might: Stark Tower. His spatially confined warfare and totalitarian language (“You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel”) are more reminiscent of classic communist Cold War foes than the irrational, decontextualized, and anti-materialist Al-Qaeda/Joker type of antagonist. It can be reasonably inferred that the failure of Loki’s intervention casts high-tech, urban capitalism as an ←316 | 317→effective antidote to foreign challengers. This comes at a time in Hollywood history that is marked by a crisis of neoliberalism and diminished faith in global capital.320 It is worth considering why the most successful blockbuster of 2012 was designed to celebrate technocapitalism instead of tapping into the palpable demand for economic change among millennials—arguably the key age demographic for Hollywood blockbusters. Daniel Franklin’s contention that “businesspeople, regardless of their personal beliefs, will endeavor to produce marketable products” (56) is confirmed by the tremendous financial success of The Avengers. Yet, it still fails to explain why large, dormant potentials for filmic narratives that go against the neoliberal consensus are not catered to on a comparable scale.321 A more holistic model of agenda-setting in corporatized Hollywood filmmaking is therefore necessary. In this book, I have provided insights into the production and distribution contexts of blockbuster movies, which are strongly undergirded by a logic of post-industrial capital accumulation through consumption.
The perseverance of the blockbuster formula in the face of profound national and economic crises can be further discussed in terms of the escapist dimensions of high-concept cinematic entertainment since the late 1970s. I identified a visual, acoustic, and stylistic format in all four movies that that totally immerses audiences in the filmic world as well as a low-barrier accessibility that promises instant gratification (the villains appear in the first scenes ←317 | 318→in all four movies). It is important to note that Hollywood filmmaking has a long history of providing escapist fare in times of economic hardship. Jonathan Derek Silver writes that “what explains […] the slow but steady increase in annual admissions from 1934 during the height of the Great Depression until America’s entry into the war” is the fact that “Hollywood gave audiences escapist entertainment providing movies that allowed them to forget the harsh realities of their daily lives” (Silver). Film journalist Sean Hutchinson cites Gone with the Wind as a primary example of this: “The film became a kind of epic catharsis that allowed audiences to recontextualize the problems of the present directly through the country’s divided past” (Hutchinson). However, Hutchinson also points out that the first Star Wars movie was a game changer in both technological and narratological respects: “Star Wars took the escapism of the early century serials and used their plucky outlook to define a fresh sense of good vanquishing evil.” The critical observation here is that the escapism in Star Wars was formulated in a context that was characterized by an ideological pushback against the social progressive interventions of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the New Deal welfare state and associated Keynesianism of the mid-twentieth century. The reactionary discourses of this pushback came together in the form of Reaganism as a transformative ideology for the political consensus in the United States in the 1980s.
The analysis of E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial revealed how the restoration of the father and the anti-bureaucratic discourse are expressive of a reactionary cultural climate, despite the more liberal inclinations of filmmaker Steven Spielberg (Rogin, Independence Day 28; Wood 155–160).322 This not only illustrates that it is not sufficient to explain blockbuster politics through an auteurist lens, but it also exemplifies how the blockbuster formula—pioneered by Lucas and Spielberg—was shaped by a reactionary incubation phase (Block and Wilson 506). Given the persistence of the culture wars, the “War on Terror,” and neoliberalism as a mainstream economic consensus, blockbusters find themselves in contested terrains that call for the mitigation of political struggles that arose in response to economically and socially progressive changes in the twentieth century. Therefore, the Reagan era remains pivotal in the elucidation of the history of the ongoing blockbuster era. The links between escapism and white, male individualism repeatedly demonstrated echoes of a Reaganite pushback ←318 | 319→aesthetic, especially in E.T. and The Avengers, both movies which were released shortly after the height of climactic economic recessions. This formula had already been operative in Rocky (1976), which, according to Robin Wood, “was designed to reinstate: racism, sexism, ‘democratic’ capitalism” (147).
However, Wood’s contention that high-concept action movies must be “intellectually undemanding” in order to assuage the audience’s implicit demand to be constructed as children was not affirmed in the analysis of The Dark Knight. The film’s philosophical ambiguities and its interrogation of post-9/11 paranoia make it less easily digestible than the blockbusters of the Reagan era. The film’s lack of resolution and the confrontational complexity of the Joker open new avenues for discussing popular blockbusters as “spectacles of gloom” rather than “dramas of reassurance.” Martin Fradley channels the thoughts of Jacqueline Furby and Claire Hines on the Dark Knight trilogy when he writes that “it is precisely the films’ moral ambiguity that makes them so culturally potent. All three films in the trilogy stage anxieties about the appropriation of weapon technologies that cannot be simply reduced to Manichean deadlock” (19). An analysis of the post-9/11 repercussions in the Star Wars prequels, for example, could expand debates on how previously optimistic film franchises are being appropriated for the reflection of a new and more dire state of the nation (Stoklasa).323 In addition, disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Al Gore’s blockbuster documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2007) could provide fertile ground for investigating popular social critiques based on ecological concerns—which were merely tangential in the early days of the high-concept film era (Eskjær 336–346).324←319 | 320→
Ultimately, it is clear that both Reagan’s political rhetoric and blockbuster movies have made ample use of escapism and the blurring of the line between “fiction” and “realities” in order to pursue neoliberal projects in times of heightened economic and cultural insecurity. Conservative rhetoric of the 1980s and blockbuster movies have continued to offer their respective audiences a cultural blueprint for imagined triumphalist pushback narratives that frequently combine formulaic tales of heroism with high-tech spectacles.
As stated in Chapter 1, comprehensive definitions of the blockbuster movie as a specific mode of filmmaking are still rare and the few that have been put forward mostly rely on financial co-ordinates, such as budgeting or return on investment (Prince, A New Pot of Gold 19; 139–140). In comparison, the related term “high-concept film” has been more extensively classified (Prince, A New Pot of Gold 209–211; Jordan 63–73; McMahon 301–303). Whatever term is chosen, scholarship on this form of spectacle has hitherto lacked a multi-perspectival and diachronic investigation that yields insights into its correspondences with ideological and cultural metatexts and the permeating influence of Hollywood’s fluctuating political economy. Reading these movies through a Reaganite lens has provided a coherent basis for situating blockbusters in film historical analyses of US-American popular culture since the 1970s. This is due not only to the fact that the spectacle of Reaganism began around the same time as the ascent of blockbuster filmmaking, but also to Reagan’s own appropriation of cinematic terrains, not to mention his role in shaping the foundations of a corporatized Hollywood.
Against this backdrop, new landmark themes have come to the forefront in the analysis of these four movies: the restoration of the nation through unfettered neoliberal consumption, the assemblage of a countercultural and reactionary aesthetic, and a body politics in which technocapitalism and masculine “hard bodies” become increasingly intertwined. In addition, a stylistic element was identified in the analysis that has not received much attention in previous scholarship: the narratological privilege of the antagonist, who appears at the beginning of all four films.
In relation to the restoration of the father, it can be maintained that consumerism frequently serves as an initiation into mythical and conservative understandings of the nation. In E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial, Elliott’s first attempts to help the alien assimilate into its new surroundings involve Hasbro ←320 | 321→toys and Star Wars-figures. Epistemologies of participation in the US-American national project are therefore pre-structured by the appropriation of a pop cultural language produced by neoliberal capitalism. This is unsurprising for a media spectacle that is immersed in a logic of consumerism. As Douglas Kellner notes, “the spectacular society spreads its wares mainly through the cultural mechanisms of leisure and consumption, services and entertainment, ruled by the dictates of advertising and a commercialized media culture” (Media Spectacle 3).
Yet, reading E.T. from a Reaganite perspective has revealed that the “invading Other” is not privy to the unifying popular language of consumer items. Often, the invaders are openly hostile to expressions of individualist consumerism. The agents in E.T. wear drab uniforms and offer the alien neither Reese’s Pieces nor action toys to establish a rapport. The aliens in Independence Day reside in dark, gloomy cubicles reminiscent of Soviet communist architecture—one of Reagan’s more prominent nightmare scenarios. In the end, a multicultural team exorcises the aliens with the help of Apple Notebooks and unregulated competition in the broadcasting sector. The Joker in The Dark Knight is not only rabidly anti-capitalist, but also demonstrably anti-consumerist. His punk-inspired outfit constitutes a conscious assault on societal dress conventions and a statement against the symbolic power of mass-produced items. Bruce Wayne/Batman, on the other hand, wears fine suits, is well known in the most expensive restaurants in the city, and uses smartphones and a state-of-the-art Batmobile to vanquish the anti-consumerist villain. In a similar fashion, Loki acts as a foil to Tony Stark in tone and style: Loki wears ancient clothing and speaks in an archaic and feudal language, whereas Stark performs within codes of recognizable mythical capitalism and “countercultural hipness.”
Ultimately, all of these antagonists seek to deprive the nation of “choice” in one way or another. In Reaganite rhetoric, the re-establishment of choice takes the form of mythical, masculine heroism. As Reagan states in his first inaugural address: “We have every right to dream heroic dreams.” The analysis affirms that such dreams go hand in hand with more consumption. The cultural-political binary of “Market and Capital” and “State and Power,” as defined by Johan Galtung (Galtung in Hammond 60–61), is a fundamental dynamic in blockbuster narratives, leading to recurrent struggles between “meritorious individuals” (Hammond 61) and forces bent on overturning capitalist success ethics (Jordan 71–73).
It would be interesting for future research to examine high-concept narratives that lambast consumerism and yet manage to retain their underlying logic as a commodity. Fight Club (1999) offers a compelling case study of such a movie, ←321 | 322→as the narrator embodies both the middle-of-the-road protagonist and the anti-capitalist antagonist. After reasserting masculinity on anti-capitalist terms, the antagonist aims for a bigger revolution, but is ultimately cast aside. Another such narrative is the computer-animated Disney movie The Incredibles (2004), which contains a villain whose aim is to turn super-heroism itself into a mass-produced item. A whole superhero family sets out to protect its social distinction from becoming a marketable product. Elementary questions for subsequent analyses might be: How far can anti-consumerism go in blockbuster movies? How is the spectacle of anti-consumerism reintegrated into the blockbuster phenomenon? For a more contemporary look at anti-consumerist blockbuster spectacles, it might also be worthwhile examining Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). As well as being among the top-grossing films in its year of release, it earned the distinction of being the most downloaded movie of 2014 (Spangler). The film’s depiction of 1980s stockbrokers in New York City draws together unbridled greed, hedonism, and masculine competition. It would be worth examining the extent to which this depiction is more in keeping with contemporary fantasies of Wall Street in the 1980s than discourses that were in fact articulated during the Reagan era.
As regards the assemblage of reactionaryism and counterculture motifs, Kellner highlights the “hippie-ness” of classic Reaganite heroes such as Rambo:
Rambo has long hair, a headband, eats only natural foods (whereas the bureaucrat Murdock swills Coke), is close to nature, and is hostile toward bureaucracy, the state, and technology—precisely the position of many 1960s counterculturalists. This is an excellent example of how conservative ideologies are able to incorporate figures and fashion which neutralize and even reverse their original connotations as oppositional style and behavior. (Media Culture 65)
Kellner’s observation can be expanded in light of my analysis. In addition to fashion items of the 1960s being appropriated for the exercise of conservative hegemony, feminist and anti-racist discourses are now a regular feature of the ideological vocabulary of Hollywood blockbusters. With the growing presence of racial diversity, gender equality, and LGBTQ identities in mass media in the United States, pre-existing counterculture “brands” have been subsumed by the same neoliberal consumption logic as previous manifestations of white, masculine, rugged individualism.
The blockbuster films in this analysis resolved the inherent tension between 1950s conservatism and 1960s progressivism through negotiations that parallel those of Reaganism: an emphasis on individualism and the negation of movement politics as a vehicle for social transformation. The individual expression ←322 | 323→of an oppositional stance frequently takes the form of a fashion statement (e.g. Tony Stark’s Black Sabbath shirt, the Joker’s punk outfit), but it is never connected to a larger movement capable of changing society. Michael Rogin is correct in his assertion that Steve Hiller and David Levinson are evocative of the Black–Jewish alliance of the 1960s. However, unlike the 1960s, there is no larger Black–Jewish movement on the ground that demands tangible changes in the political and economic realities of the nation. Marginalized identities appear as a function of the individual and have no ultimate bearing on the basic core of the nation, which is confirmed to be a white, male capitalist core in all four movies. The apparent depoliticization of countercultural politics and their integration into a neoliberal logic result in transformative pro-corporate projects that can be sold to both conservative and liberal audiences under the banner of “individual choice.”
In this context, it would be vital to examine blockbuster movies with a clear emphasis on oppositional movement politics. Their portrayals of desired social and economic change, in particular, could shed further light on the contours of “multicultural neoliberalism” and the renegotiation of progressive discourses for a broader, global audience. The highly acclaimed Selma (2014) by Ava DuVernay would constitute an interesting subject for the investigation of the portrayal of 1960s protest politics in contemporary times.
As for the intertwinement of global technocapitalism and masculine “hard bodies,” the analysis has brought various contradictions to light. Luiz Suarez-Villa explains that post-industrial technocapitalism is characterized by new modes of corporate expansion and the monopolization of information and knowledge. These new forms of capital accumulation come up against the established barriers of the national, cultural, and economic spheres. Kellner has argued that global tech corporations will resolve the underlying conflict of “Jihad vs McWorld” (Barber) on their own terms:
The emerging postindustrial form of technocapitalism is characterized by a decline of the state and enlarged power for the market, accompanied by the growing strength of transnational corporations and governmental bodies and the decreased strength of the nation-state and its institutions. (Media Spectacle 11)
In view of this, I have outlined how clashes between transnational technocapitalism and epistemologies of local community are mediated within Hollywood spectacles. Frequently, the exercise of technological strength was tied to two types of bodies: an individual, heterosexual, masculine body (E.T. and The Dark Knight) and imaginations of a more fluctuating and comparably ←323 | 324→inclusive national body in which post-ideological “rainbow alliances” participate in the construction of hyper-masculine national strength to defeat a feminized, invading Other (Independence Day and The Avengers).
By interpreting these aspects through a Reaganite lens, it is clear that fears concerning corporate globalization were transformed into spectacles of masculine and national reassertion—with the help of the same technologies that fuel such globalization. Global technocapitalism was consistently linked to the proper exercise of masculinity, suggesting a sense of mythical potency behind neoliberal consumption. The most notable exception is the Joker, who purposefully merges his frightening bodily appearance with modern communication technologies, amplified by multiple news screens across the city. While this exhibits the eminent contradictions of technocapitalist progress, it also introduces the question of “who” should rightly possess access to ultimate technological power. This question is repeatedly answered in favor of heterosexist “hard bodies” in all four movies. In parallel to Reagan’s justifications for the SDI program or the assuaging of nuclear anxieties through religious symbolism, technological progress is shown to be safe in the hands of white, male capitalism.
However, certain doubts concerning globalization and its effect on the “symbolic father” were also discernible. In E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial, the kids mourn their abandonment by their father, who now resides in Mexico. The aliens in Independence Day use global satellite dishes against humanity. In The Dark Knight, district attorney Harvey Dent advises mafia boss Sal Maroni to “buy American” after disarming him in court. The World Supreme Council in The Avengers wrongly decides to launch a missile at Manhattan—a wrong that is ultimately righted by New York City’s most prominent inhabitant, Tony Stark. Evidently, the internal contradictions of global capitalism in the negotiation of the local versus the universal can be aptly described as a constituent feature of twenty-first-century Hollywood entertainment. Additional phenomenological research into the transnational effects of blockbusters could yield further insights into the effectiveness of these mediatory models in different markets. Whether these blockbusters were conceived in Hollywood’s oligopoly or not is of little consequence as their global production and distribution has turned them into veritable transnational ventures (Scott, “Hollywood and the world” 57). How these projects are received globally is a question that can shed light on cultural resistance or appropriation on the part of audiences (McQuail 238).325 It remains to be seen whether motion picture production will be further divided ←324 | 325→into globalized, big-budget productions and local, independent productions, as Allen J. Scott argues (“A New Map of Hollywood” 2).
A central stylistic observation was the early introduction of antagonists in the narrative structures of the four films. This is a very conventional approach in storytelling, common in crime fiction, in which the villain is necessary to kick-start the narrative. However, in light of the Reaganite reading of blockbusters, this narrative feature acquires a new dimension. All of these movies present stories of reaction against already-active intruders. In all cases, forces of evil are potent enough to disrupt a US-American idyll. Coupled with the fact that none of the analyzed protagonists radically transform their societies in the end, the overall restorative character of these films clearly works in tandem with this textual patterning. The invasion by the Other does not spark emancipatory transformation, but rather a defense of established hierarchies.
In his discussion of spectacle and narrative in blockbuster cinema, Erlend Lavik explains that blockbusters are characterized by large-scale attractions, which “are awkward stopovers around which it is the task of the screenwriter to construct some story; small-scale attractions, by contrast, are simply the visible parts of some hidden structure that allows the auteur to discover or reconstruct the story” (149). Thus, the large-scale attraction merely serves as a springboard for the creation of attention-grabbing cinematic narratives. However, the large-scale attraction is instantly aligned with marketable conflicts that can be exploited in synergistic ways. David Bordwell echoes the thoughts of an indie producer-writer, who has argued that “action pictures like Volcano (1997) and Independence Day (1996) don’t need classical narrative construction because their narratives will be ‘fragmented’ into CD soundtracks and T-shirt logos. ‘The supposed “identity” of the filmic text comes increasingly under the dissolving pressures of its various revenue streams’ ” (5). However, in my analyses, the opening scenes were all shown to pre-textualize the spectacle in accessible and binary ways. For instance, menacing government jeeps arrive in the forest, scaring the clearly innocuous E.T. away. In ID4, the flag of the United States at the Moon base is cast in shadow by the arriving aliens. The Joker openly declares his disdain for societal conventions when he kills a ←325 | 326→bank clerk and Loki openly states his desire to subjugate Earth when seizing the Tesseract. By viewing these films through a Reaganite lens, a series of pre-existing juxtapositions inherited from the Cold War and the culture wars were uncovered.
While plenty of action blockbusters contain villains, who arrive much later (e.g. Die Hard, Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones movies), it is still notable that all of the analyzed movies begin “in medias res.” This offers insights into the narratological proximity of blockbuster movies to classic forms of storytelling, such as the ancient Greek epic as a pre-modern form of spectacle narration.326 This runs parallel to Reagan’s 1980 claims that the United States was a nation in crisis that needed to be rejuvenated; after all, his campaign slogan was “Let’s Make America Great Again.” The narrative starting point of decline is evident in much of Reagan’s campaign rhetoric in 1980—a time when political, cultural, and cinematic fantasies of restoration were in high demand among white mainstream society. This interweaving of the logic of modern mass spectacle with both politics and pop culture has arguably accelerated in recent years. Therefore, the next section will elucidate a few major developments against the backdrop of the Reagan legacy, the culture wars, and the growing presence of celebrity-based political spectacles. All of these developments mirror cinematic spectacles in critical ways, which underlines the potency of blockbusters in creating a common vocabulary in times of increased cultural fragmentation and polarization.
Why not an actor? We’ve had a clown for four years.
— Anti-Carter sign at the Republican National Convention in 1980
As outlined in the introduction, one of the primary goals of the analysis was to determine the correspondences between the blockbuster formula and the legacy ←326 | 327→of Reaganism in politics and mass media. This final discussion will therefore take a concluding look at the ramifications of the “Reagan myth” in conjunction with pop culture narratives of heroism. It will further situate the thematic insights gained from the analysis in the larger contexts of the culture wars and global identity politics. These threads will converge in an assessment of the role of pop culture technospectacles in shaping current political discourses in the United States. The emergence of the “Trump phenomenon” is of distinct interest here, as it exhibits a visceral combination of spectacle logic and a racist “hard-body” jingoism inflected by numerous national myths—Ronald Reagan’s election success in 1980 constitutes a historical blueprint for this phenomenon.
The legacy of the first actor-president in the White House continues to reverberate in discussions across the political spectrum in the United States. In his book Tear Down This Myth—The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy, author and journalist Will Bunch chronicles the deliberate construction of a multi-million-dollar “mythmaking industry” around the former president, which began after the lavish Reagan funeral in 2004 and was amplified after the economic meltdown of the late 2000s (198–207). Bunch offers a succinct summary of these right-wing fantasies in a passage in which he quotes Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani’s claims regarding Reagan’s alleged foreign-policy fortitude:
Asked about Iran’s reported push to develop nuclear weapons in the late 2000s under its radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Giuliani said that the current Iranian president “has to look at an American president and he has to see Ronald Reagan. Remember, they looked in Ronald Reagan’s eyes, and in two minutes, they released the hostages.” He made it sound like a standoff scene from an old Western, the kind that was in vogue when Reagan himself had arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s. And just like in the movies, the scene that Giuliani imagined with Reagan and the Iranians had never really happened. But increasingly, that didn’t seem to matter. (6–7)
In this passage, Bunch rightly points to a fantasy-driven fairy tale that connects more strongly with Reagan’s acting days than his actual presidency. Giuliani’s statement perfectly illustrates how the first actor-president is mainly re-narrated through the lens of cinematic spectacle and Hollywood mythologies. Within the context of the late 2000s, the recourse to an imaginary Ronald Reagan had become more in vogue. This is unsurprising given that the nation was reeling from a tremendous recession and widespread sentiments that imperialist ventures in the Middle East had not reaffirmed the national “hard body,” but rather exposed its vulnerabilities. Against this backdrop, Giuliani’s attempt to introduce a “mythical role model” for resolving contemporary political crises may appear questionable from a historical standpoint. Nevertheless, ←327 | 328→he articulates a spectacle-based pushback narrative that is informed by the same sub-textual desires that were present in the analyzed movies: a cinematic, Western-style stand-off against the “irrational Other,” in which dominant masculinity is achieved through the celebration of conservative aesthetics in conjunction with futuristic high-tech capabilities.
In reading the Reagan presidency through a cinematic lens, both Giuliani and Bunch offer the mirror image of my discussions, which were based on reading cinematic spectacles through a Reaganite lens.327 Through both approaches, it can be ascertained that the logic of the spectacle can create blockbuster effects in which national discourses are structured within a recognizable pop culture language of images. These images are designed to cater to the audience’s viewing pleasure, with the result that they generally reinforce pre-existing assumptions rather than challenge cultural hegemonies in relation to race, class, and gender. After all, the risk-averse structure of Hollywood is more geared toward rightly identifying consumer trends than carving out new markets from scratch (Davis et al. 105–126).
Thus, the examination of the production background of Hollywood blockbusters has resulted in critical insights for the investigation of ideological trajectories in filmic texts. These examinations have underscored that, just like Giuliani, Hollywood producers and directors rely on carefully crafted brands to cater to their target audiences. These brands can take the form of popular actors with significant star power (e.g. Will Smith in ID4), revolutionary new technologies (such as the THX sound system used in E.T.), or well-known comic-book heroes (as in The Avengers). As Georg Franck notes, the neoliberal spectacle is characterized by a general trend toward monopolizing attention. Therefore, the spectacle represents a form of capital in a complex information society (1–19).328 This cannot be achieved without effective branding. The deliberate recourse to brands that already inhabit both a pop cultural and a political space is, therefore, a rational strategy for achieving a blockbuster effect in a fragmented societal landscape. Reagan constitutes just such a brand as the pop cultural associations with his portrayal of the “Western hero” can always be utilized to ←328 | 329→reframe his presidency. Therefore, reading the Reagan persona within film historical parameters explains his increased currency at a time when the spectacle is becoming more and more important.
Moreover, the implications for Reagan mythology transcend the traditional Republican clientele. When running for the Democratic nomination in 2008, then-senator Barack Obama outlined his own thoughts on the fortieth president as follows:
Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not […] we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing. (Bunch 21)
This exemplifies how Barthes’ notion that myth is primarily a way of talking about things holds true when examining the Reagan legacy. Obama’s choice of words indicates his familiarity with the prerogative of the “politics of image and style” and his awareness of the continued resonance of Reagan’s perceived positive aura with a large part of the (white and male) electorate. According to John Freie’s analysis of the postmodern presidency, this focus on compelling viewable pleasure facilitates the pursuit of political projects that are disconnected from public mandate (Freie 19).329
This conclusion makes it possible to embed blockbusters in a larger metatext of post-industrial collective wish fulfillment in which the circulation of spectacular imagery narrates dynamism and social mobility in a time of growing inequality and economic stagnation. Technospectacles are increasingly capable of creating their own realities through immersive epistemologies of language, imagery, and consumption. This development is catalyzed by new forms of multi-platform distribution, ranging from cineplexes to smartphone apps that allow users to learn the Klingon language.330 This makes the dismantling of ←329 | 330→mythical images more complex, as counter-narratives need to compete with the attention monopolies created by corporate ownership.
The reduction of complex socio-cultural conflicts to simplified tales is by no means a new strategy in the larger history of media spectacles. Yet, the largely deregulated corporatized landscape has notably reflected global shifts toward digitalization and individualized visual consumption, which have increased the need for simplification as a counter-reaction and made it more difficult to subject the circulating mystic signifiers to effective scrutiny (Barthes 137–138). This is exemplified in contemporary debates regarding the Reagan legacy in the GOP (and beyond). Numerous commentators and political analysts attempt to deconstruct the Reagan mythology by focusing on the “full signifier” in the Barthesian sense (127). For instance, in his article on “The Reagan Obsession,” Mike Young rightly highlights a general pattern of inflationary lionization:
If he were a candidate today, Reagan would almost undoubtedly be vilified by the Tea Party and fail some of the most important Republican litmus tests. […] Maybe he would succeed in communicating in a way that would make Republicans look past his record, but that seems to be the only chance he would really have. He may have been a Republican icon in his day, but if you took Reagan then and brought him into now, he could really only play one on TV.331
The final words of this conclusion are key: “he could really only play one on TV.” What the analyses of blockbuster movies have repeatedly confirmed is that there is ample demand for “viewing” the optimistic reassertion of the nation, “viewing” the entertaining performance of a masculine hard body, and participating in collective fantasies of high-tech modernity. This demand cuts across party lines and across the globe. The fact that Reagan effectively fulfilled the “role of the conservative politician” is what manifestly satisfies the desires of large segments of his right-wing audience. There is now significance evidence to suggest that long-lasting cultural transformations require the effective visualization of mythical imageries through a media-savvy delivery (e.g. through a former actor or TV celebrity). Factual policies often retreat into the discursive background. The repeated circulation of these popular (and thereby profitable) images leads to the cementing of the underlying narratives in public discourse (Lakoff, Thinking Points 37). Counter-narratives to these myths need ←330 | 331→to compete within an attention economy that privileges easy shareability and replication and is more fragmented (Barthes 138–139).
The effective delivery of a visual mythology represents a malleable ideological toolbox that transcends party lines. In this sense, the spectacle of the Reagan presidency can be seen as a blueprint for a larger cultural and political transformation achieved through the proficient use cinematic narrative. This argument is strengthened by the fact that, over the last 40 years, no president other than Reagan has managed to secure his legacy by passing the torch to a like-minded successor.332 And even though Bill Clinton and Barack Obama took notes from Reagan’s playbook in relation to cultivating political celebrity status, neither one effectuated a realignment that departed from the post-Reagan neoliberal consensus. In fact, it can be reasonably argued that the opposite is true. In his assessment of Obama’s presidency, Ramesh Ponnuru maintains that “at no point in Obama’s presidency did his political success make Republicans consider assimilating some of his views into their philosophy, as Bill Clinton had done with Reaganism. Republicans are even less likely to make such an adjustment now.”333 This observation adds to the notion that first-hand proficiency in the logic of the contemporary cinematic and TV spectacle is a unique advantage when creating long-lasting cultural and political blockbuster effects.
The confluence of technological, cultural, and political transformations is also exemplified by the ongoing culture wars. This set of social struggles reverberates in cultural productions as well as political rhetoric, which puts this analysis right on the “front lines.” As outlined in the introduction, the current culture wars began in the 1970s, when reactionary forces sought to “roll back the clock” in the face of socially progressive movements. Kellner states that “[t]he conservative counterrevolution became hegemonic in the U.S. with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980” (Media Culture 18) and that “sexual politics” (102) remains the principal dividing line in the resulting societal conflicts. In this book, I set out to determine the power dynamics of conflicting ideological positions from a narrative and stylistic perspective. By considering these dynamics in relation to right-wing rhetoric and the themes of Reagan-era cinema, their functioning within the culture wars was ascertained.←331 | 332→
In the analyses, it became manifest that the questions of who belongs to the family and what attributes the ideal US-American body should possess were both answered in ways that were reconcilable with the general trajectories of Reaganite neoliberalism and neoconservatism and encumbered by a drive to validate a certain measure of pluralism. By applying Lakoff’s “strict father” model to these inquiries, the underlying tendencies toward conservative restorations of the family were made visible. However, these restorations remain “bi-conceptual” (Lakoff, Thinking Points 14–15) to a degree, as they pay homage to public imaginations of social progress through representation. Examples of this include the female aide to the president in the White House, the African-American CEO for Wayne Enterprises, and the hard-working single mother raising three kids in suburbia. In the context of debates surrounding “family values,” this bi-conceptualism appears not so much as a “middle position,” but rather as a straightforward reflection of cultural dilemmas that individuals must constantly negotiate. Irene Taviss Thomson refers to the pop culture examples of “Ozzie & Harriet” and “Murphy Brown” when explaining that unmitigated ideological purism regarding cultural issues is not prevalent:
Americans appear to manifest both a center-seeking tendency and strong ambivalence about culture war issues. Divisions between those who side with Ozzie and Harriet images of family life and those who align with Murphy Brown, for example, “do not take place between camps of people; instead, they take place within most individuals.” […] Since traditional values and the quest for self-realization may dictate contradictory behaviors, it is no wonder that Americans may experience conflicts over culture war issues and may simultaneously embrace both sides of the debate. (7)
It be inferred here that neither the widespread conservative assumption of a “liberal Hollywood” nor a coherent mode of reactionary cultural mass production can be attached to the blockbuster movies I have analyzed. Instead, it would be more accurate to state that these cultural fantasies tap into a larger national subconscious by reworking pre-existing myths into the resolution of contemporary struggles. For instance, the role of religion is manifest in all four movies without ever being made explicit. E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial contains elements of a Christian parable, including a resurrection scene and the performance of miracles—all in order to reconcile a white suburban family and validate its success against an intruding “big government.” Both Independence Day and The Avengers include references to religion to stake out how the “good ones” differ from the invading Other (Julius Levinson invites random people at Area 51 to join in a Jewish prayer before the final battle; Natasha Romanoff is visually connected to church paintings during her first appearance). While these ←332 | 333→elements may not be enough to persuade right-wing evangelicals to view these films in a positive light, they do calibrate cinematic imaginations of the role of religion in the public sphere. These movies leave room for “Judeo-Christian” symbolism at critical moments and thereby present a means of distinguishing between the United States and the Other.
The impact of continued debates regarding reproductive rights in blockbuster movies constitutes a highly relevant subject for further discussion. Susan Jeffords’ notion of the “hard vs soft body” facilitates discussions of agency with regard to feminized bodies in pop culture fiction. The interrelationship between neoliberal capitalism, with its emphasis on individual choice, and the performance of the masculine “hard body” is especially likely to produce contradictions in this regard. For example, the “indie blockbuster” Juno (2007) offers an ambiguous and yet probing exploration of this issue that proved compatible with its mainly liberal audience and with the box office. However, it remains to be seen how major Hollywood blockbusters respond to these ongoing frictions. Further analyses could approach this topic by examining the control of female sexual desire from a psychoanalytical angle, for example. The feminization of the Tesseract in The Avengers constitutes a possible starting point for examining how the policing of female bodies through masculine authority remains a staple in contemporary Hollywood.334
The far-reaching and complex correspondences between blockbuster filmmaking and cultural transformations have also manifested themselves in the engulfment of political spectacle in “celebrity logic.” This trend has notably accelerated in recent years, with increasingly high-profile pop culture figures running for public office. Any thorough analysis of celebrity politics in the United States will greatly benefit from taking a closer look at Hollywood blockbuster culture and Reagan’s public persona.
Douglas Kellner argues that the media spectacle is frequently employed in politics to direct public discourses into avenues that privilege style over substance (“Barack Obama and Celebrity Spectacle” 121–123). He affirms that it is vital for an informed public “to learn to deconstruct the spectacle to see what are the real issues behind the election, what interests and ideology do the candidates represent, and what sort of spin, narrative, and media spectacles are being used to sell candidates” (“Barack Obama and Celebrity Spectacle” ←333 | 334→138). Kellner righty points out that the spectacle remains a tool for mediating societal conflicts, aspirations, and grievances. However, recent scholarship is increasingly undecided on the question of whether a “style-versus-substance” paradigm should be the primary lens for understanding the recent trend of celebrity candidates, who frequently assume the mantle of a populist rejection of an established political class. Throughout the analysis, I have illustrated how pop culture spectacles serve as a release valve for societal tensions. These conflicts are not only mythically resolved on celluloid, but also put into a narratable form. The cross-media dissemination of such tales facilitates the spread of a pervasive vocabulary with which public debates can be made more accessible and emotionally engaging. Blockbusters were shown to combine different ideological and cultural elements to form succinct high-concept scenarios. The relatability of these audiovisual dramas provides opportunities to channel grievances in an emotionally resonant way. This, in turn, creates new forms of social disruption at a time when the neoliberal consensus among major parties seems unshakeable.
In his article on the “Democratic Worth of Celebrity Politics in an Era of Late Modernity,” Martin Wheeler summarizes the thoughts of John Keane, who has argued that new communication technologies can add to a kind of “Monitory Democracy” in which ordinary citizens can form “bully pulpits.” These highly personal forms of voicing dissent are characterized by a postmodern fragmentation in which “there exist ‘One person, many interests, many voices, multiple votes and multiple representatives’ ” (Keane in Wheeler 415). Accordingly, “celebrity politics may be seen to enhance democratic processes that are no longer defined by ‘interest aggregation on the input side of politics; but rather with the organisation of “voice” and accountability on the output side’ ” (Wheeler 415).
However, the analyses of the political economy of Hollywood has affirmed that the construction of a blockbuster effect across multiple platforms relies heavily on what Barthes calls “the quantification of quality” (154–155). Carefully crafted market research was pivotal to all of the movies analyzed in this book; none of them became blockbusters by accident or by unexpectedly uncovering a dormant potential. On the contrary, the role of focus groups, surveys, location scouting, extensive market research, and test screenings exemplified that these were finely engineered media spectacles, ready-made for consumption. Examining the legacy and industry repercussions of these films provided insights into how production companies were guided by “best-practice” examples to ensure even greater financial success for the next blockbuster ←334 | 335→franchise. This strategy is now paying off for the corporatized Hollywood oligopoly in the form of ever-rising revenues across the globe.
Even though unexpected political celebrity status can more easily arise in today’s digitalized media landscape, corporate capitalism wields the research tools and distribution mechanics to reproduce spectacles at an increasing rate. As the preceding discussion of the Reagan mythology has shown, the reproduction of pop culture spectacles that cater to the same narratological and ideological lexicon has a profound role in co-creating a climate in which larger cultural and political transformations take place.
It is also imperative to note that established notions of gender, race, and class hierarchies are central to any social constructions of political stardom. The main protagonists in the analyzed blockbusters performed within the parameters of normative, white, middle-class masculinity (E.T., The Dark Knight, The Avengers)335 or were immersed in the myths of white male dominance (e.g. the Hiller–Levinson duo in Independence Day). This reflects the persistence of discourses on social hierarchies, which implicitly circumscribe which kinds of “celebrity” status are attainable, how they can be attained, and who can attain them. Liesbet van Zoonen describes how the attainment of “celebrity status” remains a highly gendered affair:
The Hollywood star system is commonly seen as the historical source of celebrity culture. Biographies of stars and histories of studios have shown how Hollywood tried to transfer movie codes of masculinity and femininity onto male and female actors and their real lives (Dyer, 1979). […] ‘celebrity’ is built structurally on the confluence of media appearance with the real lives of performers. As a result, female celebrity is articulated primarily with the codes and conventions of media representations of women. (219)
The gendered nature of celebrity has direct implications for the effectuation of political change through spectacle. If politics is increasingly articulated through spectacle (as Kellner maintains), then the voices of marginalized and structurally disadvantaged groups might be severely diminished—or pre-altered by media conventions established by highly concentrated conglomerates. Consequently, it would be worthwhile for future research to further disassemble media narratives of mythical political heroism from an intersectional perspective. Preliminary evidence suggests that the term “populism” needs to ←335 | 336→be disentangled from celebrity politics, as celebrity status is highly dependent on codes of social privilege.
Thus, it becomes important to interrogate so-called “populist” spectacles, such as the rise of Donald Trump (Kellner, American Horror Show 123–158), but also the electoral successes of racist and far-right demagogues in Europe, Brazil, and many other corners of the world. These self-appointed “Tribunes of the Plebs” are united in that most of them do not come from the economic, spatial, racial, or gendered margins of their respective societies (Frank). In an opinion piece for the magazine Politico, Amy Chua points out that “for millions of lower-income Americans, Trump has done a remarkable job presenting himself as being on their team, creating a tribal bond between a celebrity billionaire and blue-collar voters, while excluding the ‘elites’ in the middle.”336 The key phrase here is “presenting himself” as it highlights the relevance of telegenic narrative and mastery of modern forms of spectacle (including proficiency with digital platforms). Scholars and political commentators have already discussed how the construction of an overriding public persona can eclipse counter-mythical narratives using pop cultural powers of persuasion. What needs to be dissected in more detail is how the formats and aesthetics of mass popular culture contribute to the construction of a common political vernacular that cements the seemingly counterintuitive tribal bonds that Chua describes.337
In my analyses, the diachronic analysis of recurrent blockbuster themes inherited from the Reagan era points toward the establishment of specific fantasies of conflict resolution in which an entrenched political class needs to make way for a resurgent, hyper-masculine “common man” while keeping entrepreneurial and free-market myths intact. The examination of the repercussions of blockbuster spectacles has uncovered how multi-channel distribution and merchandise facilitate the emergence of worldwide “communities of consumption” ←336 | 337→immersed in the visual langue of the respective movies. These trajectories make it clear that blockbuster culture plays a part in visually channeling societal frustrations into spectacles of insurgency against an intellectual professional class, but not against the accumulation of obscene amounts of capital (as in The Dark Knight or The Avengers).338
It may be worthwhile for further research on the connection between popular culture and “populisms” to incorporate Barbara and John Ehrenreich’s concept of the “Professional Managerial Class” (PMC) in potential analyses (Ehrenreich 5–45; Ortner 99–100). Mass cultural productions with global appeal can provide critical insights into fractioning and realignments within the PMC. Due to the corporate-owned structure of mass media, internal conflicts in corporate capitalism are bound to find themselves represented in pop culture spectacles. There is considerable reason to believe that the “Trump phenomenon” is expressive of such a transformation. For instance, historians generally agree that Ronald Reagan assisted in visually cementing a similar shift within the Republican Party, when the affluent and New Deal–oriented Rockefeller wing of the GOP was minimized in favor of a more pro-corporate and Sun Belt–oriented hard-right course (Troy, The Reagan Revolution 39–44).
It is important so stress that neither Reagan nor Trump kick-started white middle-class resentments toward governmental bureaucracy, intellectual establishments, or racialized communities. Yet, they both constitute significant public mediators for the restoration of more openly racist and chauvinistic political tendencies. This mediation is structured by their effective use of a pop culture–inflected language and persona, which illustrates the key role of cinematic and TV imagination. As this analysis has demonstrated, Hollywood blockbuster imagery provides a highly pervasive and emotionally charged language of pop culture mythologies that transcends national borders and social communities on a massive scale. Performing within this kind of language provides access to an increasing number of disaffected voters and non-voters. Journalist Glenn Greenwald summarizes the political currency of these “blockbuster effects”:←337 | 338→
Professional political analysts have underestimated Trump’s impact by failing to take into account his massive, long-standing cultural celebrity, which commands the attention of large numbers of Americans who usually ignore politics (which happens to be the majority of the population), which in turn generates enormous, highly charged crowds pulsating with grievance and rage.339
Blockbuster spectacles have tremendous cultural and political currency and their role in reflecting and catalyzing social transformations cannot be underestimated.
A closer and final look at the Trump spectacle reveals how the blockbuster mode of monopolizing attention and encapsulating societal struggles in a vociferous way is very much operative in today’s political landscape. As previously noted in this book, such spectacles are usually the result of years of meticulous brand building and cross-media storytelling. For instance, Donald Trump first became publicly visible during the Reagan era as a self-styled “real estate mogul,” who embodied a narcissist mode of hyper-affluent consumerist hedonism. His persona clearly paralleled the materialism epitomized by the character Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street (1987). After a series of business failures, he calibrated his personal brand to become a producer and host of the reality TV show The Apprentice. This renewed pop culture exposure gave this seemingly washed-up 1980s icon a platform to promote his brand among newer and wider audiences. The longevity of The Apprentice (which he hosted on NBC from 2004 until 2015) firmly cemented Trump’s celebrity status across the United States and around the globe. This was coupled with reality TV’s oeuvre of bite-sized, Internet-ready mini-spectacles. It is curious that a man whose businesses were declared bankrupt five times played a seasoned entrepreneur on television. This revived celebrity status became the staging ground for a string of subsequent media and election spectacles replete with openly racist, sexist, nativist, and hyper-capitalist language.
The impact of Reaganism on the “rise of Trump” could be summarized as follows: Ronald Reagan helped to deregulate the media and entertainment business in the early 1970s as Governor of California (Jordan 32). This deregulation led to the rise of cable TV across the nation in the late 1970s (Jordan 33). The early success of cable TV resulted in the formation of MTV as a ←338 | 339→groundbreakingly new entertainment venue (Jordan, 102–103). MTV catalyzed the reality TV formula in the 1990s and 2000s, starting with shows like The Real World (Andrejevich in S. Jones, “MTV: The Medium was the Message” 87).340 The financial success of reality TV shows led to the creation of The Apprentice by NBC in 2004. And The Apprentice ensured that Trump remained a staple in popular culture in the United States up until his presidential bid in 2015. Of course, such a brief genealogy is too reductionist and limited. However, this overview reveals that a look back at the cultural and ideological shifts of the 1970s and 1980s can help to contextualize contemporary mass spectacles. In many ways, when comparing Reagan to Trump, such spectacles seem to have come full circle.
There is a considerable ideological overlap between Reagan’s and Trump’s stated policies and the foci of their tales of supposed “national rejuvenation.” Both made space a prominent canvass for their fantasies of high-tech saber-rattling: Reagan with his SDI program and Trump with his proposals for a “United States Space Force” (Kluger). Both peddled stories of previous national decline that could allegedly be reversed through the unleashing of imagined white, male muscle-flexing. Tom Engelhardt explains in his article on Trump’s infamous 2016 campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” that the New York billionaire “is the first person to run openly and without apology on a platform of American decline.”341 However, Engelhardt goes on to state that the most recent notable precedent for this type of discourse is found in Reagan’s own political speech: “That note of defensiveness first crept into the American political lexicon with the unlikeliest of politicians: Ronald Reagan […] think of him as Trumpian before the advent of the Donald, or at least as the man who (thanks to his ad writers) invented the political use of the word ‘again.’ ” The recourse to a mythical past through accessible sound-bite stories and pop culture–friendly imagery was also exemplified by the Reagan campaign’s 1984 TV ad “It’s morning again in America,” a commercial that is frequently touted ←339 | 340→as having been instrumental in delivering the “electoral blockbuster” of 1984 (Troy, Morning in America 134).
But even beyond thematic similarities, the two actor-presidents have a lot in common. When Trump took office, he became the oldest individual ever to have become President of the United States at the age of 70. This distinction had previously been held by Reagan (inaugurated at age 69). Trump is the second president to have been divorced; the first was Reagan. Reagan’s official campaign slogan in 1980 was “Let’s Make America Great Again”; the Trump campaign was creative enough to drop the “Let’s” from the same phrase. Both Trump and Reagan were long-time members of the Democratic Party before shifting to the GOP (Drezner). Both found themselves at the helm of a pivotal insurgency within the Republican Party, during which they focused on reactionary populism and racist appeals to the white working-class vote. And last but not least: Both built their public personas as second-rate stars of cinema and TV respectively.
In my analyses, I have traced the far-reaching cultural repercussions of the first “actor-presidency” in the history of the United States. Future will show how the long-term ramifications of the second one will unfold. One thing is clear: Any form of effective resistance against renewed spectacles of neoliberal capitalism and neoconservative imperialism requires an extensive understanding of the pop culture spectacle. This book was designed to contribute to just such an understanding.
History may not have ended, but we are stuck in a loop,
our Walkmen endlessly rewinding and restarting the
soundtrack to a movie we’ve seen too many times. It’s time
to turn it off—or at least to recognize that it’s still playing.
(David Sirota, From Charlie Sheen to Reagan Nostalgia,
The ’80s Just Won’t Go Away)
317 In his conclusion to Media Spectacle, Douglas Kellner summarizes that “[i]n the age of media spectacle, politics is mediated more and more by the forms of spectacle culture and, in particular, by appearance, image, style, and presentation, but also narrative” (176). Given the immersive and global nature of blockbuster movies, it can be stated that they represent some of the most overarching and mobilizing forms of political mediation in the contemporary media landscape.
318 Engelhardt specifies that “[o]nly with the presidency of Ronald Reagan did a Lucas-like reconstitution of the war story truly begin at the governmental level” (270). For instance, a martial celebration like Top Gun would have been unthinkable in the post-Vietnam climate of the mid-1970s.
319 Slavoj Žižek notes in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) that “[c]inema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what to desire, it tells you how to desire.” He echoes the views of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who opined that desire results from a lack of completeness and can, therefore, never be satisfied. The pleasure of viewing provides a visual narrative to fill that void; it must, however, be renewed with new spectacles (Micucci). Therefore, ongoing and increasing consumption go hand in hand with the blockbuster formula and neoliberal political projects of a suggested expansion of choice.
320 The filming of the movie coincided with the Occupy Wall Street protests in late 2011 (“Occupy Wall Street: What Hollywood Is Saying About the Protests,” The Hollywood Reporter (October 1, 2011). Accessed October 27, 2018: <https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/occupy-wall-street-what-hollywood-242877>).
321 In her analysis of the post-2008 wave of protests, sociologist Ruth Milkman highlights that “a 2011 Pew poll found that 49 percent of Millennials had a positive view of ‘socialism,’ nearly double the rate for Boomers (25 percent). The same poll found a substantial generation gap in attitudes about capitalism: 47 percent of Millennials expressed a negative view of capitalism, compared to 39 percent of Boomers” (6–7). She goes on to explain that “[t]his Millennial worldview synthesizes the identity politics associated with the New Left of the 1960s and the traditional critiques of class inequality and capitalism associated with the Old Left of the 1930s.” This counter-Reaganite view has, however, only been partially translated onto the big screen in blockbuster filmmaking. The analysis of the legacy of The Dark Knight briefly discussed the tenuous integration of Occupy Wall Street into the The Dark Knight Rises. What is still lacking is a blockbuster spectacle that celebrates these progressive views in the same way as The Avengers celebrates neoliberal capitalism, for example.
322 Rogin summarizes that “George Lucas and Steven Spielberg may not have been Ronald Reagan’s political supporters, but they anticipated and participated in the Reagan counter-revolution” (Independence Day 28).
323 In his online commentary video, “Mr. Plinkett’s The Star Wars Awakens Review,” Mike Stoklasa opines that “the Star Wars prequel trilogy is […] the most entertaining lesson in civics ever given, specifically, the way it reveals how even a republic peopled by representative leaders with the best intentions can make decisions that result in disastrous policies, accompanied by devastation and the crumbling of great ideas” (Stoklasa).
324 In his article, “The Climate Catastrophe as a Blockbuster,” Mikkel Fugl Eskjær observes that “the 1970s disaster film was typically about man-made disasters such as runaway trains, blazing high-rises, periled airplanes, ocean liners turned upside down, an [sic] so on. In the 1990s, when the disaster film experienced a sort of revival, there was a shift toward natural hazards and disasters such as volcanoes, meteor impact, weird weather phenomena, pandemic threats, and so forth. Recently, the two tendencies have merged into a greater interest in man-made, or anthropogenic, natural disasters; what has elsewhere been called ‘(un)natural’ catastrophes” (340).
325 Denis McQuail puts forward the notion that “media may be a necessary, but are unlikely to be a sufficient, condition for cultural resistance or submission” (238). However, questions of the political economy and ownership of resisting media have now been significantly altered in light of digitalization and increased self-production around the globe. Against this backdrop, resistance in popular culture is experiencing a tremendous realignment, which poses a serious challenge to the usually risk-averse corporate capitalism.
326 In his book The Epic in Film: From Myth to Blockbuster, Constantine Santas offers a definition of epics that accords with the basic narrative outlines of blockbuster movies: “[E]pics can be seen as the embodiments of collective myths and symbols that enable a society to establish its own identity and face its severest tests […] the epic film can be seen as an embodiment of aspirations, hopes, fears and other collective emotions and feelings [of a society]” (Santas 2; Sturtevant 111). Paul B. Sturtevant adds that while the content of epic storytelling might change, its fundamental form has survived from antiquity to today (126).
327 As stated in Chapter 1, Douglas Kellner outlines that a key feature of the diagnostic critique is to use “history to read texts and texts to read history” (Media Culture 116). The bi-directional reading of texts such as the “Reagan presidency” or blockbuster spectacles helps to illuminate mythical distortions and obfuscations as distinct narrative and ideological formulas can be extracted.
328 Franck explains that “[c]elebrities are the new class of super-rich who live on the social product of attention, as channelled and redistributed by the mass media” (6).
329 John Freie recounts an anecdote in which CBS correspondent Leslie Stahl ran a TV news story with “pictures of Reagan visiting homeless shelters, glad-handing African-Americans and interacting with schoolchildren.” The news segment was accompanied by a sharply critical voice-over, which highlighted Reagan’s slashing of social programs, opposition to affirmative action, and cutting of school funds. Yet, staffers at the Reagan White House called Stahl the next day to thank her for the report. Their response was that “people don’t listen to the news, they watch it and she had provided the White House with ‘golden images’ which they couldn’t have produced better had they done it themselves” (19).
331 Mike Young, “The Ronald Reagan Obsession: Making of a Myth,” mic.com (February 3, 2013). Accessed December 19, 2018: <https://mic.com/articles/25187/the-ronald-reagan-obsession-making-of-a-myth#.V4bZtcY7w>.
332 With the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988. This was the first time two different presidents from the same party were elected in a row since Harry S. Truman succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt.
333 Ramesh Ponnuru, “Obama Was Not the Left’s Reagan,” National Review (January 19, 2017). Accessed November 1, 2018: <https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/01/president-obama-legacy-not-liberal-reagan/>.
334 In the opening scenes, when Nick Fury demands an explanation regarding the happenings in the SHIELD research laboratory, Dr. Erik Selvig elaborates that “[t]he Tesseract is not only active, she’s … misbehaving.”
335 Tony Stark may not be “middle-class” in the strict sense of the word, but his character analysis has demonstrated that he can effectively perform within a middle-class habitus. Bruce Wayne is publicly known to be a billionaire, but the Batman isn’t. In fact, he is described as an “ordinary citizen” by Harvey Dent.
336 Chua, Amy, “How Billionaires Learned to Love Populism,” Politico (March 4, 2018). Accessed November 3, 2018: <https://www.politico.eu/article/how-wealthy-elite-billionaires-donald-trump-learned-to-love-populism-politics/>
337 Anthony Kaufman describes this theme of “upper class insurgency” in his review of The Avengers: “This myth of the renegade outsider is all over the ‘The Avengers,’ but the irony, of course, is that they are the ultimate insiders. Like any number of political candidates who present themselves as outside the beltway […], ‘The Avengers’ have money, strength, good looks and unlimited power” (“The Politics of ‘The Avengers’; Or, Can Clean Energy and Old-Fashioned Jingoism Mix?” IndieWire (May 7, 2012). Accessed September 27, 2018: <https://www.indiewire.com/2012/05/the-politics-of-the-avengers-or-can-clean-energy-and-old-fashioned-jingoism-mix-233479/>).
338 Amy Chua goes on to state that “[f]or the billionaire populist, being rich isn’t a handicap. It can even be an asset. Research shows that in America, white working-class resentment against elites is often directed much more against professionals—lawyers, doctors, professors, establishment politicians, even journalists—than against the mega wealthy” (Chua). Her observations align with Bourdieu’s theses on the fractioning of the bourgeoisie in the world of commerce versus the world of art (Ortner 99–100).
339 Glenn Greenwald, “Donald Trump’s ‘Ban Muslims’ Proposal Is Wildly Dangerous But Not Far Outside the U.S. Mainstream,” The Intercept (December 8, 2015). Accessed November 3, 2018: <https://theintercept.com/2015/12/08/donald-trumps-ban-muslims-proposal-is-wildly-dangerous-but-not-far-outside-the-u-s-mainstream/>.
340 In relation to MTV’s reality programming, Andrejevich states that it brings “universal access to the means of publicity as self-promotion that characterizes the democratic promise of reality TV” (Andrejevich in S. Jones, “MTV: The Medium was the Message” 87). This observation affirms the populist aesthetic of the modern, digital spectacle, combined with a thrust toward constant self-stylization and branding.
341 Tom Engelhardt, “Trump says what no other candidate will: the US is no longer exceptional,” The Guardian (April 29, 2016). Accessed January 31, 2019: <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/29/donald-trump-make-america-great-again-exceptionalism>.